Despite great obstacles, Jews throughout occupied Europe attempted armed resistance against the Germans and their Axis partners. They faced overwhelming odds and desperate scenarios, including lack of weapons and training, operating in hostile zones, parting from family members, and facing an ever-present Nazi terror. Yet thousands resisted by joining or forming partisan units. Among them was Sam Lato.
Sam Lato was born in the town of Baranovichi, Poland, on February 24, 1925. East of Warsaw, Baranovichi became part of Soviet-annexed Poland in 1939. Sam and his family would not have direct contact with the Nazis until the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1941, his town was occupied. A few months later the Baranovichi ghetto was created. Sam became a part of the resistance in the ghetto before he learned about the partisans. In Baranovichi, he made cigarette lighters to barter on the black market, and smuggled in medicine and bullets.
In the spring of 1942, the first major massacres began in Baranovichi. Through luck, Sam was spared from death numerous times, but in the autumn, in the wake of a second major slaughter, he decided to take his chances and flee into the forest. Many of the other young men in the Baranovichi ghetto had the same idea; when Sam finally reached a partisan encampment he learned that there were already more than a hundred Jews from Baranovichi in the brigade. On one of his first missions, Sam met a young female partisan who made a deep impression on him. They bonded quickly, and within months they were conducting missions together as husband and wife.
Initially Sam’s brigade suffered from a lack of supplies—they had no explosives to carry out sabotage and the camp itself was ravaged with typhus-infected lice. But in the spring of 1943 they began to receive direct support from Moscow. New clothes, weapons, and medicine were air dropped to them by Russian planes and elite Soviet paratroopers were sent in to help them coordinate their activities. Sam was chosen as a paratrooper auxiliary, accompanying the Russians on their missions. In 1944, Sam was liberated by the Russians and joined the Red Army in their advance to the Baltic Sea. Sam and his wife remained in the Soviet Union for several years following the war, but eventually they defected and fled to West Germany, ultimately immigrating to the United States, where Sam lives today.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Sam Lato's decisions and actions? Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?